TCHAIKOVSKY IS NOT a composer whose name readily comes to mind in a discussion of chamber music, but he did leave five major works in that category, and the first and last of these are fairly well known - if not necessarily in their original forms. The earliest is the first of Tchaikovsky's three string quarters (D major, Op. 11), from which the exquisite Andante cantabile is often performed independently, and usually by a string orchestra instead of a quartet. (It was apparently the first Tchaikovsky piece to be turned into a pop hit, inthe late '30s, when it was fitted out with words as "The isle of May.") The string sextet called Souvenir de Florence (Op. 70) has also been taken into the string quartets (Op. 22 in F major, Op. 30 in E-flat minor) are both splendid works, and both inexplicably neglected by most of our performing ensembles, while the curiously structured Piano Trio in A minor (Op. 50, in two movements, the second being a gigantic set of variations) does get some exposure, but rarely without cuts in the variations.
The four works for strings without piano have turned up in a three-disc set on Columbia's low-priced Odyssey label (Y3-35237), and with them is the one-movement string quartet in B-flat which Tchaikovsky wrote in 1865 and heard performed by his fellow-students at the Moscow Conservatory in November of that year. The quartets are performed here by the Borodin Quartet, which is joined by violist Genrich Talalyan of the Komitas Quartet and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich in the Sextet. The recordings must be at least a dozen years old - these performances of the Sextet and the B-flat Quartet circulated here about that long ago on a Melodiya/Angel disc, since deleted, and the Borodin Quartet was subsequently disbanded when one or two of its members sought asylum in the West - and the sound is a little wiry in spots.
The sound is quite handsome in the Gabrieli Quartet's December 1976 recording of the three mature quartets alone, recently issued in a similarly economical two-disc set in London's Stereo Treasury Series (STS-15424/25), though I have to add that on the domestically pressed discs I received for review, two sides are disfigured by repetitive thuds which can be eliminated only by use of a low-frequency filter. In any event, the English foursome is strongly competitive, and this will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the Gabrielis' superlative accounts of Dvorak's Opp. 51 and 105 on STS-15399.
The differences between the Gabrieli and Borodin approaches might be reduced, in terms not only simple but probably oversimplified, to a somewhat declamatory style on the part of the English musicians, with more dramatic contrasts from one episode to the next and a rather gentler, more "nostalgic" view on the part of the Russians. Both are effective, both are convincing in their ways. The Gabrielis show themselves perhaps more willing to take a few chances, as in their very slow tempo for the slow movement of the Third Quartet (a work composed as an elegy for Ferdinand Laub, who had led the ensemble that gave the premiers of the two preceding quartets), which is most effective, and in the mannered phrasing of the scherzo in Op. 22, which I felt does not work very well.
Except for that one movement in Op. 22, I tend to prefer the Gabrielis. The early B-flat fragment is not too interesting, even as a curio, and the Souvenir de Florence is more persuasive - down-right irresistible, in fact - in an earlier version in which Rostropovich and Talalyan performed in a group of all-stars whose other members were violinists Leonid Kogan and Elizaveta Gilesl (Kogan's wife, sister of pianist Emil Gilels), violist Rudolf Barshai (another expatriate now, currently conductor of the New Israel Chamber Orchestra) and cellist Sviatoslav Knuschevitzky. This mono recording is on Monitor MC 2019, Ivan Khandoshkin's brief Variations on a Russian Theme, played by Kogan and Rostropovich.
It should be noted, too, that there is yet another appealing two-disc set of the three quartets, played by the New Vienna Quartet (Musical Heritage Society MHS 1116/17), and this may be the mostsatifying of all such collections. The problematic Op. 22 scherzo is given an ideal performance - so good that it spoils both of the others - and only the corresponding movement of Op. 30 might be found a little disappointing in the way of over-relaxation. The recording (by Amadeo) may be as old as the Borodin's, but it compares not at all badly with what London has given the Gabrielis.
(The aformentioned Piano Trio, by the way, receives its most persuasive recorded performance - one of only two or three known to me which have no cuts at all - on another MHS release, this one of Spanish origin, on which the executants are pianist Jorge Bolet, violinist Victor Martin and cellist Marco Scano. The number is MHS 1643.)